Ramallah, October 14, 2020—“I was scared at school,” 15-year-old Amir H. told Defense for Children International - Palestine. “Whenever I saw soldiers, while on the way to school, I would be scared and try to get away from them as much as possible because I had been stopped before, more than once.”
A return to school in September meant that for Palestinian students living near illegal Israeli settlements, journeys to school and schooldays would once again be marred by violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Amir, currently a ninth-grader at Tuqu Secondary School for Boys, located east of the southern occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, has been subjected to numerous attempted arrests on his way to and from school by the Israeli military.
“I was extremely terrified and started screaming and felt the Israeli soldiers wanted to take me and hit me,” reflected Amir on a prior incident. “They scared me a lot.” His teachers, the school principal, and others intervened to protect him.
Amir’s story is not unique. Stationed throughout the occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers, police, and private security staff protect settler populations. Unlike other Israeli civilians, many Israeli settlers are armed. This creates a hyper-militarized environment that results in the infliction of disproportionate physical and psychological violence against Palestinian children.
Students living under Israeli military occupation in the occupied West Bank commonly face arrest, detention, violence, and harassment at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers. Additional barriers such as checkpoints, roads used by Israeli forces and settlers, and other military infrastructure in or near Palestinian communities present additional barriers to the enjoyment of their right to a safe learning environment in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was ratified by Israel in 1991.
During the 2019–2020 school year, which was cut short due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, DCIP documented 134 violent incidents by Israeli forces between August 20, 2019, and March 6, 2020, impacting at least 9,042 students and teachers.
Amir’s school is in close proximity to the nearby illegal Jewish-only settlements of Teqoa, Noqedim, and Ma’ale Amos, which surround Tuqu to the north, south, and east in the southern occupied West Bank. A main regional road used by Israeli forces and settlers cuts through Tuqu and nearby Khirbet Ad-Deir.
At the Tuqu Secondary School for Boys, DCIP documented 15 incidents involving Israeli forces, including five incidents between February 4 and March 4, 2020. In those incidents, Israeli soldiers fired multiple tear gas canisters at students outside the school in the morning. Many children reported breathing difficulties as a result of the tear gas and, on one occasion, at least three students lost consciousness, according to documentation collected by DCIP.
Previously, on January 31, 2019, three Israeli soldiers in a military vehicle near the bypass road fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters at Tuqu students leaving their classes and chased them, according to documentation collected by DCIP. One Israeli soldier fired four live bullets, shooting two children. Mohammad A., 17, sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen, and 16-year-old Mazen S., sustained a gunshot wound to the thigh. Their classmates were left in a state of panic and fear.
Despite the perilous journey to school, Amir told DCIP he feels safe once he’s inside. “I am excited, and I am challenging myself for the new school year,” said Amir.
Another student, 16-year-old Baha A., an 11th grader at Tuqu Secondary School for Boys, expressed similar feelings of safety once he reached school, though his commute frequently includes confrontations with soldiers.
“Whenever I see Israeli soldiers, the first thing that occurs to me is that something bad is about to happen. They either search or arrest us,” Baha told DCIP. “I do not feel safe on my way to school. But, I feel safe when I reach school. I feel safe inside the classroom because I am surrounded by many students and teachers.”
Zain, 12, a seventh-grade student at the Hebron Basic School for Boys, which is located in the Israeli-controlled H2 section of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, feels the continuous presence of Israeli soldiers on his route to and from school has impacted his ability to concentrate in class.
“I think of how to run away, and I feel scared of being shot with a rubber bullet from the back,” Zain told DCIP. “I think that I am about to lose my life. I feel off and sleepy and unable to focus on the teacher and lesson.”
Asked how he feels after he encounters soldiers, Zain said, “I feel as if I was choking, and my heart starts beating faster. I feel dizzy and cannot move when I see soldiers near me.”
Abdullah R., 9, from the Ziad Jaber School in the southern occupied West Bank city of Hebron, said, “I love school, and I am happy that we have returned.” But he, too, noted he is not able to focus after incidents of violence.
On his way to school in November 2019, Israeli forces used two military dogs to chase and intimidate Abdullah, according to documentation collected by DCIP. The Israeli soldiers searched his schoolbag and held Abdullah for about an hour. Abdullah lives in close proximity to the Jewish-only settlement of Kiryat Arba so Israeli soldiers are regularly present and deployed nearby his home.
“I no longer take the road where I was assaulted by the Israeli army,” said Abdullah. “Whenever I find myself there, I remember what happened to me.”
Between 1967–2017, more than 200 illegal Israeli settlements were built in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to B’Tselem. These settlements are illegal under international law and are protected by Israeli soldiers, police, and private security, exposing Palestinian children to frequent violence.
In such a hyper-militarized environment, frequent and disproportionate physical and psychological violence is inflicted on Palestinian children who report, among other abuses, regular harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers on their way to school and attacks against schools.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) recorded 547 incidents of attacks and trespass by Israeli settlers against Palestinians between January 1 and October 13, 2020. During this period, Israeli settlers injured 100 Palestinians and vandalized 5,650 olive trees and 166 Palestinian vehicles.
The Al-Khansa Elementary Mixed School and Al-Jarmaq Elementary School for Girls in Tuqu were attacked in March 2019 by a group of 25 armed Israeli settlers. School administration and staff told DCIP that the Israeli settlers attempted to sneak into the schools but were stopped by teachers and parents, who rushed to the school to help stop the attack. Israeli forces arrived to support and protect the Israeli settlers, firing stun grenades, which scared the children. A full day of instruction was lost for a total of 569 students and teachers.
“The first time the settlers attacked us, I was very distracted the following day and could not focus inside the classroom,” Baha told DCIP. “All I could think of was which way to go home.”
According to Baha, he and his classmates were harassed after school every Wednesday in September 2019 by an Israeli settler in a white vehicle with three dogs along Khirbet Ad-Deir Street in Tuqu.
“We expected that this settler would shoot us because he showed us his handgun,” explained Baha. “Even though we changed our route to school every Wednesday, we still encountered the settler no matter where we went. He was there all the time, and we felt terrified.”
Following incidents of settler violence, DCIP has found that lack of justice and impunity is the norm and not the exception. At the center of the issue is the disparate treatment by the Israeli government of Palestinians and Israelis living in the occupied West Bank. Though they live in the same territory, all Palestinians are subject to military law, while Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian and criminal legal system.
Israeli settlers, including children, often attack Palestinians with stones and other objects, but they are rarely held accountable as the Israeli army lacks the authority to arrest Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
Despite persistent settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities have consistently failed to adequately investigate complaints filed against settlers. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, published a data-sheet in January 2020 showing that over 90 percent of investigations between 2005 and 2019 looking into ideologically motivated crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli forces and settlers were eventually dropped without indictments.